This year marks the 50th anniversary of Knott’s Scary Farm, a Halloween staple of Southern California. The fog and monster filled streets are a far cry from the small berry patch with tea room that it started out as in the 1920s, and it’s impressive that both the farm turned amusement park and the somewhat haphazard Halloween event of 1973 have become a place where creatives push their creativity to terrifyingly fun limits.
So what exactly is Knott’s Scary Farm? Long time readers may be familiar with the unique Southern California tradition, but I’ll elaborate for those new to the blog. On select nights Knott’s Berry Farm offers a special ticketed event where Guests get to step into their very own horror movie. The pathways of the amusement park are filled with fog and monsters who seek to make you scream! Once you’ve made it past the “Scare Zone” monsters, you can find yourself in one of the many “mazes” offered. While not mazes in the traditional sense where you get lost, these are more like winding hallways and rooms that feature elaborate theming. You may find yourself in an old wax museum overrun by a mad artist who now uses human flesh, or an aging Art Decor hotel filled with all sorts of ghouls. Once you make it out of those alive you can take a breather at one of several different shows, or nosh of various tasty bites. But Knott’s Scary Farm wasn’t always like this, it’s taken decades to reach the caliber it is known for today.
Since the 1950s Los Angeles had television horror hosts, such as Vampira, and by the late 1960s Larry Vincent, under the pseudonym Sinister Seymour, had taken to the airwaves of KTLA and performed live “spook shows.” He took his live act to the recently opened amusement park Magic Mountain 1972 with “Seymour: The Master of the Macabre.” However the event didn’t go as well as hoped because of the outdoor venue. Seymour’s manager looked to other amusement parks in Southern California and eyed Knott’s Berry Farm because of its large John Wayne Theatre (today known as the Walter Knott Theatre) and called up Knott’s with the idea. After some discussions with the Knott family and other departments, the decision was made to go forward with a special, separate ticketed event with Seymour. What Seymour and his manager didn’t know is that Knott’s had been giving thought on how to lure in Guests during the off season, and teaming up with Seymour was the answer!
Halloween weekend, 1973, Knott’s transformed their Haunted Shack, Log Ride, and Mine Ride and encouraged employees to dress up. Classic horror icons and monsters were seen throughout the park, and one woman dressed up as a green witch, little did she know she, just as Walter Knott had done, created an accidental icon. The three night event sold out, and so it returned the following year, however Seymour was battling cancer and only returned for 1974 before passing away in 1975.
In need of a new headliner, Knott’s turned to iconic DJ Wolfman Jack who entertained the Halloween loving crowds that only grew as the decades went on. More acts such as bands and magicians were added. In 1976 The Hanging was added, but not the version known today. It was more akin to a real hanging, with a fake trial and the hanging of a murderous cowboy. Eventually they changed to hanging a witch by the name of Danielle Le Farge, and eventually the witch had a new name, Sarah Marshall.
As Knott’s Scary Farm entered the 1980s, it welcomed a new headliner, the horror hostess with the mostest, Elvira. They also started to expand upon walk-thru “maze” attractions. Later Knott’s replaced the witch hanging with the hanging of a “gypsy.” This of course resulted in more complaints, and today the word is being better recognized as a racial slur. With the “gypsy” hanging lasting only one year, the entertainment team morphed The Hanging into the violent pop culture roast that it is today.
Elvira came and went over the decades, and eventually Knott’s Scary Farm came into its own, creating new mazes each year and expanding the areas where their monsters roamed, coining the term “Scare Zone.” Ghost Town Streets was the first Scare Zone, with a plethora of ghostly gunslingers and half-human, half-animal hybrids, that would later become part of a larger story. While some Scare Zones have come and gone over the years, Ghost Town Streets has remained. Eventually Knott’s no longer felt the need for a “headliner” as the entire event was an attraction in itself, but they wanted some sort of symbol, a mascot of sorts.
Eventually Knott’s decided the popular “Green Witch of Calico” who first appeared in the 1970s would be their icon for the Halloween event, and gave her her very own house, with the maze Trick or Treat. Later they decided to take the mishmash of witch history in the park and streamline the lore, dubbing her Sarah Marshall, after the witch who was hanged in the earlier Hanging shows, and gave her another maze, Origins, which told the tale of how she raised the dead and cursed the town to showcase their animal instincts, so that every Halloween the citizens of Calico (the name for Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town) would turn into the half-human, half-animal hybrids that had already existed. The maze finally gave what fans craved, a story as well as easter eggs from Knott’s Berry Farm’s past.
Over the decades, Scary Farm has continued to push the envelope, by embracing movie level make-up, technology such as laser tag and virtual reality (although sometimes in a manner that lacks foresight and consideration), and rich storytelling with unique and original characters. The success of Knott’s Scary Farm proves that theme parks don’t need to use IP as a crutch to lure in Guests. Knott’s Scary Farm regularly sells out, and has continued to bring in different types of audiences. From those who seek the jump scare, to foodies in search of unique tastings, to theatre lovers wanting to watch comedic acts or feats of daring in their circus stage show.
To celebrate, Knott’s Scary Farm has unleashed three new mazes. Chilling Chambers harkens back to the most iconic mazes of the past. Room 13 is attached to the Scare Zone Goring 20s, where guests enter a rotting Art Deco hotel. Through a dilapidated movie house amid the CarnEvil Scare Zone, Guests enter into a real life horror movie in Cinema Slasher.
Through the doors of the Walter Knott Theater, guests can watch the fabulous musical review, Music, Monsters and Mayhem, which pays tribute to the old headliners. I’m a huge fan of this review and its campy look back in time.
Those in the Southern California area can brave the fog at 8039 Beach Boulevard in Buena Park, on select dates through Halloween. For further details, including tickets, visit Knott’s Berry Farm’s website.
Dougherty, Ted. The History of Knott’s Scary Farm. Ultimate Haunt Publishing, 2023. Print.
Merritt, Christopher & Eric Lynxwiler, J. Knott’s Preserved: From Boysenberry to Theme Park, the History of Knott’s Berry Farm. Angel City Press, 2015. Print.